Richie Mo’unga kick saves All Blacks – deepens Eddie Jones’ Wallabies dilemma

Richie Mo'unga kick saves All Blacks

With scoreboard pressure on his team, a last-minute Richie Mo’unga kick has saved the All Blacks from defeat in Dunedin, all the while deepening Eddie Jones’ Wallabies dilemma in 2023.

Unable to hold an – at times – 14-point lead, the Australians may take some positives from their 23-20 defeat. Yet in the crucial run into the Rugby World Cup 2023 campaign, none will want to admit the pressure is on them with zero victories across the entire Rugby Championship and this Bledisloe Cup fixture.

It took a turn in favour for the hosts to resolve an early barrage from the visitors. Strangely, New Zealand play was shaky and questionable in their execution. Many runs and breaks were incomplete. Handling errors may be as a result of the flat defence, but with the field opening, you just can’t drop balls and expect to take a game by kicking erratically. Especially when the intensity is heightened by a World Cup knockout match [remember Yokohama]. This match

The Wallabies threatened to halt the party for senior All Blacks, who played a final test on home soil, yet ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. Richie Mo’unga strode confidently onto the field when given the nod. And his last-minute kick is one highlight of a brilliant cameo role.

Not the highlight Eddie Jones imagined, as his side started the better and held authority in possession and territory for almost 43 minutes. Yet in an 80-minute Test match, it is the side that leads after the full-time whistle that crows loudest. And Jones went from crowing to reaching for positives as his Wallabies dilemma continues.

Richie Mo’unga kick saves All Blacks – deepens Eddie Jones’ Wallabies dilemma

The player himself explained to Sky Sport: “It was awesome to be called out onto the field, and sort of add my bit. I was really clear with what I wanted to bring. But big ups to our front row, the way they performed in that second half as well. They gave us a whole lot of opportunities.”

Winning with penalty kicks is not the All Blacks mojo. They go for the five-pointer. And on several occasions – especially on half time – failed badly to realize the potential for a practiced, three-point return. So the manner of the win was not as exciting as in 2016 when they reacted to Ireland holding a six-point lead with minute remaining. So no heroics yet every fan knows the value of a quality placekicker. Alan Hewson, Grant Fox, a Don Clarke. And like those men, Mo’unga delivered when required to.

He also took many fine kick returns, and that skill should be highlighted too. In the game where high kicks are challenged, retaining possession is a skillset that sees Mo’unga a highly prized contributor to the All Blacks’ unbeaten record. This Richie Mo’unga kick will also be remembered fondly, as he is off for a sabbatical in 2024. The Richie Mo’unga Japanese contract may remove him for more than two seasons, so his legacy in the South Island is well assured after a starring role.

Clutch is the phrase thrown around, yet practice might be the better analogy. Himself, he spoke precisely about how composure assisted him in his pivotal kick. He explained: “I’ve been there before. Before the game, I was standing on the 40 visualizing a game-winning kick. So when that moment came, I’d been there before. There was no fear in my mind on the outcome. As a kicker, and as a kid, we grow up wanting to be in those positions.”

“I’m glad I was able to do my bit to get the boys over the line.”

Struggling for contestable ball and continuity, bring Mo’unga in so early is no slight on Damien McKenzie. The two are different players, but in this situation, he brought the right attitude needed for a win. “We needed to respect the ball, and our opposition. They were quality tonight, and they put us under a whole heap of pressure, and we’ll actually be better for it over the long run.”

That final message should be plastered on the team’s wall when they reassemble after the official Rugby World Cup 2023 squad is announced on Monday afternoon.

Foster impressed with replacements and impact delivered

It wasn’t just the one player with respect, as rugby union is a team sport. Mo’unga needed his forwards to overcome the Wallabies pack. And to present a scrum penalty: which Aaron Smith darted away from smartly to excite the crowd in attendance, but when the opportunity presented itself, the Crusaders champion first-five helped correct a side who did not look on a path to victory for much of the contest.

All Blacks head coach Ian Foster spoke post-match with SkySport, saying: “I thought, we started poorly, they started well. Unlike last week, they got points and put us under a lot of pressure. Really delighted with that second half you know, we took a while for [combinations] combo’s to settle down. We got passive defensively. But great challenge for us to get back, and I loved that composure.”
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster (photo credit unknown).

Asked in regards to what momentum his side would take out of a loss, but also how this better performance would help Austral, Foster remarked, “I guess probably. I was more focused that we were down in that first half, and we’ll analyze why that was. We were certainly passive defensively, and you can’t do that against Australia, as they recycle well, and they’ve got a lot of big ball carriers, so I guess they’ll take a lot of confidence from it, but so will we.

“From our leadership side, to get it clear and precise in that last quarter, I thought it was great, ” Ian Foster said. 

The impact from the bench was exactly what was needed, to halt the frivolous and desperate play. If not for the whole game up to the 50th minute, when the role of pivot was substituted, the game necessarily improved. The composure for sure, with less wayward kicks and a more detectable precise play. Thanks to input from Aaron Smith, Dane Coles, and a refreshed front-row that changed tack for the hosts.

Foster clarified how he saw their impact over the second half. “Delighted with it. We had to go early – obviously we lost Brayden [Ennor] and Brodie {Retallick] early, so how we managed the bench was critical. I think the guys that went on played well, I think also particular congratulations to the new boys today. Samipeni [Finau], I thought he go better and better as the game unfolded. So did Shaun [Stevenson]. And Dallas [McLeod] got stuck in early, and he showed what a quality player he could be.”

Many positives to take from the result, though the application to begin with, was lacking. That was from a starting XV that was markedly different from the sides who played South Africa and Australia in Melbourne. Rewards might be gleaned from the mistakes and lessons learned. Though on the opposing team, taking positives out of a loss much harder to believe in.

Ian Foster and All Blacks selectors name their RWC squad on Monday, August 7. New Zealand plays in Pool A including France, Italy, Namibia, and Uruguay.

Jones has to find some winning formula in short-time

Ever the wordsmith, it was a subdued Eddie Jones who exclaimed his men’s efforts under a huge microscope for their embattled performance. A well-deserved praise too, reciprocated by the opposition yet when you talk up the reasons your opposition should be the ones under pressure, the reversal means Jones will only be given so much legroom on the flight home. His collar will be tight, and any device within his reach could suffer the same as his walkie-talkie did in Dunedin.

Even if the camera facing the coaches’ box seems to be an invasion of personal space, producers now highlight every outburst from the former England head coach. A digital device was constantly slammed on the counter, as it was several weeks before, as have pens and other items when Jones is filmed. He appeared calm in the post-game press conference and wisely chose his words to the waiting media.

“You look in that dressing room and the boys are gutted,” he said. “We’re working bloody hard and we’re not seeing much for it at the moment. But what we are seeing is small areas of our game growing and growing quickly too.”

Growth potential is good at the beginning of any cycle. By way of a Rugby World Cup due to start on September 9 it seems to be a daunting task. Eddie admitted it would be a tough ask. Somewhat incredulously, asked if his men ranked eight would raise the Ellis Cup at the World Cup starting in five weeks, a typically bullish Jones replied: “One hundred percent, in fact I think we will, mate.”

“I couldn’t say I’m happy. Four losses are four losses but … sometimes the result sheet doesn’t reflect what you’re actually doing and that’s hard for people to understand. I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction but we’ve got to win games.”

With a bright outlook, many have displayed great attitude and reached great heights. Yet the Wallabies looked downhearted at the conclusion of the game. It will take all of the best management skills that Eddie Jones can register, for that Richie Mo’unga kick to be wiped clean from the memory banks. It will take a huge effort to ignite the 1991/1999 champions from their form slump. A mammoth task, one that just got a bit bigger for Eddie Jones and the Wallabies squad.

Australia appears in Pool C of RWC2023, and face Wales, Fiji, Georgia, and Portugal to reach the playoff stages


“Main photo courtesy of A Pleno Rugby”